Republicans criticize draft of mine safety bill
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WASHINGTON -- Congressional Democrats introduced a draft of new mine safety legislation Tuesday in response to the deadly explosion at Upper Big Branch mine that would expand the powers of and stiffen the penalties from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The 100-page Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010 was the work of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the House Education and Labor Committee. Those two panels have held hearings in the past two months to examine worker safety issues surrounding the April explosion that killed 29 -- the worst mine disaster in 40 years -- even as the investigation into the causes of the blast is in its infancy.
The bill's authors hailed it as a major advance in mine safety law, but the draft was criticized by Republicans on the committees, who said they were left out of the process, and a leading industry group, which questioned expanding MSHA's authorities when the agency doesn't always use the ones it has effectively.
The bill would give MSHA more latitude to shut down a mine that exhibits a "pattern of violations" and additional power to subpoena documents and witness testimony in its investigations. It also would ratchet up the civil and criminal penalties MSHA can impose on problem mines.
In addition, the bill would mandate that mine operators pay miners while they are idle as long as a mine is closed for safety reasons; under current law, they have to give miners a maximum of half a shift's pay.
"This is a big protection for miners and it seems to me a huge incentive for mine operators to fix these problems," said former MSHA official Celeste Monforton, now a professor at George Washington University.
The paychecks also would take away a disincentive for miners to report unsafe conditions.
At a hearing in Beckley, W.Va., the Education and Labor Committees heard testimony that some miners at Upper Big Branch were afraid of retaliation if they spoke up about poor safety conditions. The draft legislation also strengthens whistle-blower protections and mandates that all miners receive at least one hour of training each year on their workplace rights.
Following recommendations from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the bill would require higher levels of rock dusting, a process meant to neutralize explosive floating coal dust. The Upper Big Branch explosion is believed to have been caused by a buildup of methane, amplified by coal dust. Investigators from MSHA, the state of West Virginia and Massey Energy, which owns the mine, began to enter the mine Tuesday to work on determining the origin of the blast.
But lawmakers refused to wait months for an investigation to be completed before pushing legislation.
"We are determined to put sharper teeth in our workplace safety laws and to step up federal enforcement," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the HELP committee said in a statement. "We look forward to working with members on both sides of the aisle to find bipartisan solutions for workers. These policy ideals start that dialogue."
Republicans scoffed at the idea of bipartisanship, saying they were not involved at all in the first draft of the bill. They contrasted it with the 2006 MINER Act, passed after the Sago disaster, in which the late Sens. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., worked across the aisle.
"Instead of pursuing that productive approach, Democrats have chosen to introduce a sweeping piece of legislation that affects every business in this country and only amplifies the adversarial role of [the Occupational Health and Safety Administration] and MSHA, without increasing safety," HELP Committee Sens. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said in a statement.
Minnesota's Rep. John Kline, the ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, criticized the bill for extending beyond mine safety, adding whistle-blower protections to the Occupational Safety and Health Act that apply to all workplaces.
In a statement, Mr. Kline advocated "improving the mine safety laws on the books and demanding stronger enforcement by the federal agency charged with protecting miners. The proposal offered by Democrats takes a much more expansive approach, reshaping workplace safety policies that have nothing to do with protecting miners working underground."
Luke Popovich, of the National Mining Association, wrote in an e-mail that the organization was concerned with expanding MSHA's authority when congressional inquiries have shown that the agency has been lax at times in enforcement.
"MSHA needs to use the authority it already has for making mines safer before it supplements that authority with still additional provisions," Mr. Popovich wrote. "Giving regulators more tools does no good if they lack the will or ability to use the tools they have to improve mine safety."
MSHA withheld official comment Tuesday but an agency official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said MSHA had a large role in crafting the bill and was supportive of its goals.
First Published June 30, 2010 12:32 am